Something's been troubling me recently about the way American Christians have participated in the abortion debate. Then, I read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on abortion (referenced below) and my troubled thoughts were confirmed. It concerns what I think is a fundamental problem with the American Church's stance on abortion, one that is not only theological problematic, but also standing in the way of the Church making any cultural inroads on the matter in the US. (Notice I said "cultural inroads"--that is, making a transformational impact in our culture. I'm not talking about laws and legal policy in this post, although that is another important matter.)
I think it is wrong for the Church to frame the debate about abortion in terms of the woman's "rights" versus the child's "rights." It is wrong from a rhetorical perspective and an ethical perspective. Let me explain.
First of all, the language of "rights" arises from Enlightenment liberalism, which does not take into consideration the Judeo-Christian view of the human person in relation to the Creator God. Christians don't believe in "inalienable rights" (Thank you, Stanley Hauerwas!). Christians believe that everything about our lives matters to God and God has told us how we can and cannot live. The same goes for our bodies. Christians have no rights over their bodies. Those baptized into Christ have given their bodies over to God's reign. In this way, debating about rights is entirely unnatural for Christians, because we don't believe we have rights over anything!
Secondly, pitting the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child is also ethically problematic, because it forces us to choose between defending the one or the other, but not both. This too is entirely un-Christian. Women and children are made in God's image. They bear the mark of their Creator and have been designed by him with love and purpose. When Jesus taught his disciples that their ministry unto "the least of these" would be ministry unto him, I think he most certainly included women and children.
It should be obvious why children are among "the least of these." They possess nothing that our society finds valuable: money, power, or influence. And, yet, Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. For this reason, children must be embraced by the Church and protected, for in their weakness, we see the face of our Lord.
It may not be quite so obvious why women are among "the least of these." Unfortunately, what secular feminism and liberalism have often failed to do is reveal just how vulnerable women still are in the US. There are two reasons for this. First, we tend to assume "women" equals white women. Compared to their brown, black, and tan skinned sisters, white women are doing pretty well. But, the plight of women of color in the States is an entirely different story, often one of poverty and struggle (which I don't have the time to document here). Second, the media's coverage of "women's stories" tends to focus on preferential hiring for women, women's rights, women advancing in higher education, etc, and its easy to get the impression that women (=white women) are doing quite well. But, in a broad view, that's just not the case. And, I'm not talking about "equal pay for equal work," either.
Let's consider one vital area where women are not prospering: violence against women. In the US, the evidence indicates that women are being abused every day, in every socioeconomic class, in every religious group, in every ethnic category, all over the country. Recent statistics tell us that every 15 seconds a woman is abused. Abuse is the single largest cause of injury to women in the US, greater than the number of injuries sustained from car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (Read that sentence one more time.) Thirty-five percent of women who seek treatment at a hospital emergency room are there for symptoms of ongoing abuse. Thirty to forty percent of female homicide victims are killed by their male partners. Every day, ten women are murdered by their male partners. And, every five years, more women are murdered by their intimate male partners than the number of all American lives lost in the Vietnam War.
We could take this picture global, too. Research has shown that a woman, whether living in the so-called First World or the developing world, is more likely to be injured, raped, or physically threatened by a current or former intimate male partner than by a stranger or any other person. On every continent, at least one in ten women report being physically abused by an intimate male partner. One in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. This means that, of the approximately 4.5 billion women around the world, about 450 million have suffered physical abuse by an intimate male partner, and about 1.1 billion have been sexually assaulted. Indeed, if violence against women was swine flu, it would be considered a pandemic.
OK, so what's my point? Weren't we talking about abortion? Whether liberal media elites portray it this way or not, women are among "the least of these" in this country. They continue to possess a subordinate status in most situations, especially when it relates to their physical person and sexuality. For this reason, women and children are to be embraced by the Church as those in need of nurturing, care, and protection. I'm not trying to turn all women into helpless victims here, nor am I suggesting that all men are abusing women (of course not!). But, I think that the framing of the abortion debate in terms of women vs. child has made many Christians view women as "the problem"--and that is a problem!
It is my firm conviction that until the American Church begins to be as supportive of women's issues as they are against abortion, especially voicing continuous and loud opposition to violence against women, there will be no cultural progress made. The Church must be a champion of women. And, the Church must be champion of children. Both are welcomed into the open arms of Christ and both must know that they are wanted and loved by his Church.
Despite our preconceived (and often ill-informed) notions, a woman who gets an abortion rarely (if ever) does so because she's vehemently protecting her "right to choose." More often, she does so because she believes she has no choice. She has no reason to hope and she turns to what has been presented to her as an easy medical procedure to fix things. Typically, women are convinced that they do not have the means or capability to care for the new life they're carrying. Or, women are convinced that they will lose important relationships if they go through with the pregnancy (whether with family or men, or both). In both cases, the woman is made to believe that she is solely responsible for the life she carries--and that's simply not true.
Women facing poverty, abandonment, abuse, or other difficulties because of pregnancy should not believe they are alone. Its not enough to wave picket signs and confront women with pictures of aborted babies--to give her the choice between murder and hopelessness. The Church must become the defender of women. This can take place on a practical one-one-one level or at a structural level.
How many of us would have a young woman come live with us throughout her pregnancy and then offer her child a home, if she so desires? Are we prepared for the real inconvenience and sacrifice that would entail? How many of us would accept teenage mothers into the church, help pay their bills, and provide them with loving guidance for parenting? How many of us would adopt the Downs syndrome child that a young mother of three feels she can't provide for?
Or, getting beyond the personal, what about good, affordable healthcare for a mother and her child (even if *gasp* government funded)? What about supporting sufficient child allowances and ample federal standards for maternity leave (and I don't mean the paltry 6 weeks that most companies provide)? What about real protection for women in blue collar jobs who will, despite the legality, lose their jobs when they give birth? What shall we say about those things?
Christians must no longer pit the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child. Not only does the Church not believe in "rights," because we have given up our rights to follow after Christ, also we care deeply about the lives of both women and children. And, when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood, we believe that they rise and fall together. Supporting a woman financially, emotionally, and physically during a pregnancy and after delivery means supporting the child, too. Offering a loving home to a pregnant young woman abandoned by her boyfriend means offering a home to the young woman's child. And, standing up to abusive men, male promiscuity, and deadbeat fathers means standing up for women and children, as well.
Again, I'm not talking about laws. I'm talking about the Church's ability to influence and transform cultural views of abortion. The Church of the resurrected Christ always greets new life as a joy and a miracle of God. In this world of violence, death, and destruction, it is the most absurd and the most profound thing that we continue to welcome children and believe that God's reign is salvation for them. In order to do so, however, we must change the way we speak about the abortion issue and the way we view women and children within the debate. It is imperative we turn this corner if we're ever going to approach creating a true culture life within a lost and dying world.
Abuse statistics come from a study cited in Betty Coble Lawther and Jenny Potzler, “The Church’s Role in the Healing Process of Abused Women,” Review and Expositor 98 (2001): 228-230.
Also, the above commentary was inspired by Stanley Hauerwas, "Abortion, Theologically Understood," in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). You can find the text of this essay online in a number of places. One is here.